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Jun 25 2014

When It Comes to Food, Southerners & Israelis Have a Lot in Common

By at 3:51 pm

spices

I am a southerner. My husband is an Isreali. On the outset, many people think it is a strange pairing, but in fact, our backgrounds share much in common. We are both from communities made up of tenacious people of faith whose circumstances inspire ingenuity and who are intensely tied to the land.

I was not raised Jewish, but my spiritual journey to Judaism began long before I met my husband. I converted on my own terms, yet my decision to go kosher was one that was venturing into a new and frightening territory. It was encroaching on the little piece of home that I had left, my kitchen.

Living in New York, most Jewish food is of the Ashkenazi fare. Either sweet or salty, it often tasted bland to my palate, and completely foreign to me. I never had a vegetable that wasn’t cooked in bacon grease until I moved here. Nor would I believe you, if you had told me I would never go to another crawfish boil again.

In the South, there’s hardly any food that isn’t touched by bacon grease or found at the bottom of a swamp. Many southern Jews find the temptation to steer clear of pork complicated, if not unbearable.

While worried I might be relegated to a life of matzah balls and borscht, my husband had his own adjustments to make. Though he was completely Americanized, he longed for the huge feasts prepared by his grandmother, mother and aunts.

My mother-in-law is from the small community of Jews from Yemen. She immigrated to Israel with her parents and six siblings via Operation Magic Carpet in 1949. It’s now estimated there are fewer than 300 Jews left in Yemen, but their culture continues to thrive in Israel.

On my first trip to Israel, I finally experienced what my husband had been missing. I savored the delectable soups, breads and meats served by the Hizmi women. With my melting pot southern heritage rooted in Spanish, French and Carribean cooking, I was relieved to find Yemenite spices, both aromatic and hot, felt much more familiar to me than the New York Jewish deli food.

Like southern food, I found it to be simple and homey in its style, but enhanced by the culture’s unique seasonings. Accustomed to barbecue sauce, roux and tobasco, I found the intense flavors of Yemenite food equally compelling: aromatic hawaij spice mix, spicy schug hotsouce in red and green, and the unique froth of the fenugreek herb called hilbeh.

My mother-in-law’s famous kubaneh was so similar to the buttery biscuits and dinner rolls I knew. This tasty morning bread, tightly rolled dough baked in a pan steeped in butter, has enough cholesterol to make Paula Deen blush.

The women of my husband’s family were kind enough to take time to teach me their secrets, and short of bringing home a taboon (an open fire clay oven), I now had some of the tools to try my hand at my husband’s favorites. I have not replicated their cooking, though by my own husband’s account, I do make a mean Yemenite chicken soup.

I still get my stash of hawaij spice mix direct from my mother-in-law, and while I don’t know her recipe, here is a fairly standard one. Grind and mix the ingredients together then try some in your chicken soup or lamb stew this winter to savor some Yemenite flavor in your favorite dish. But beware! The seasoning will dye nearly everything it touches a lovely, but stubborn saffron yellow.

6 1/2 tablespoons black peppercorns

1/4 cup cumin seed

2 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 1/2 tablespoons green cardamom pods

1 1/2 teaspoons whole cloves

3 1/2 tablespoons ground turmeric

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